Monday, 28 July 2014

Word Factory Short Story Reading Club - George Saunders

A world comes into focus when discussing a short story

This month I have spent a blissfully enormous amount of time around writers, first on an Arvon course (with Jon Mcgregor and Helen Oyeyemi) and then at the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in Vienna. As a result, I don’t think there has been a day in July when I have not had a conversation about George Saunders! This all came to a head on Saturday when, at the Word Factory short story club, we discussed Saunders’ tragi-comic story ‘The End of FIRPO in the world’.

The story follows the pre-adolescent Cody as he cycles around his American suburban neighbourhood, his thoughts revealing an unhappy life and his plans to take revenge on a local family for their snobbish mockery of him. The stream of consciousness is a hilarious and poignant mixture of joyous fantasy and unpleasant memories, until the story takes a sudden turn...

Hobbes' epithet of life as solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short seems fitting here, for Cody’s life and Cody himself. In the very first sentence he refers (in the curious third person narration created by Cody giving a running commentary on himself inside his head) to one neighbour as a 'chink’ and another as a ‘squatty-body’, whose unfortunate cat Cody has hit with a ‘lug nut on a string’. His behaviour doesn’t get much better – his revenge plan involves blocking the Dalmeyer’s hosepipe to make it explode. 

But in amongst his comical phrases and wonderful imaginings (he plans to shrink the neighbours with a ‘special miniaturising ray’ and then use them to plant ‘hideous boogers of assassination’ in another boy’s thermos) we start to spot reasons for Cody’s attitude. He is teased and abused relentlessly by the posh Dalmeyers, whom Saunders deprecatingly depicts with ‘confident underwater watches’ and ‘nice tan pants’, and also by his mother and her boyfriend. It is the latter who calls him FIRPO, and the fact that the seeming acronym is never explained only makes its insulting nature more affecting as we wonder what it means. Another mystery is Cody’s ‘nosehole noise’, which also provokes mockery even though he seems to do it when anxious or upset. 

In the group discussion of this story, we talked about redemption, this being a requirement that many people seem to have of a short story. For me, Cody is redeemed by his wonderful imagination, which is what gives the story its joy while it lasts. For others, he is redeemed by the fact that we figure out, whilst he doesn’t, that he is a product of those around him and their unpleasantness. At the end of the story, without revealing too much, Cody does not believe it when a stranger tells him he is good. He is certain he is ‘FIRPO’ and that this man is too for saying something like that. Some readers saw this stranger as a Christ-like figure – he is stick-thin, with ‘a silver cross hanging down.’ Does his insistence that God loves Cody redeem him? For some, Cody’s rejection of this simply showed how religion fails to redeem. Never expect agreement in a short story reading group! 

Talking about this very short story (only 9 pages) in a group revealed just how much was going on in there, and how many interpretations are available. Different readers drew different comparisons – Kurt Vonnegut, J D Salinger and Mark Haddon all came up – and so many ideas in the room made me see the story through new lenses. The voices George Saunders has created in his collections Pastoralia and Tenth of December are often funny, but the more I looked at this one the more haunting it became.

If you’d like to get involved in discussing short stories, check the Word Factory Short Story Club page for up-coming meetings. They’re free and all are welcome, writers, enthusiasts and the curious alike.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Writing Short Stories for Radio

Penguins listen so carefully they sometimes fall over

Ah, the cherished dream of the fledging short story writer – to get 13 minutes’ exposure on BBC radio. Such is the potential prize, each time I draft a story to submit to Radio 4’s Opening Lines, for example, I fail to send it in because I feel I have not edited enough, it is not quite as close to finished as I can ever get it.

I’m glad, now, that I followed this impulse. At the first London Short Story Festival in June, canny curator Paul McVeigh had managed to get hold of Di Speirs, books editor at BBC radio, and arranged a session for her to talk about short fiction on the radio along with writers whose work has made it thus far.

The pleasurable part of this session was listening to Claire Keegan, Lisa Blower and Stella Duffy all read from stories of theirs which were written for broadcast, or edited for radio having made the BBC Short Story Prize shortlist. It was interesting to listen to writers read aloud in voices not their own, and to be asked questions that only another radio-edited writer, KJ Orr, could ask. But the nuts and bolts of this session came from Di Speirs herself, so for writers who crave their 13 minutes of radio fame, it is Di’s advice that I’m going to summarise here. This woman, after all, has an attuned ear – she gleans the three best stories from 2,000 or so submissions – and her advice is golden.

1. Think of the woman chopping onions

When Di looks at a piece for BBC radio, she imagines that woman, standing in her kitchen chopping onions, and goes from there. This stands for a lot: as Di went on to explain, many listeners will hear the start of a story whilst distracted, and then be drawn in, so you better grab their attention if you want them to stay with it. So think of that woman chopping onions as a shortcut to thinking of the listener as Di does. However...

2. The woman chopping onions is not a stereotype

Some of us might dress that imaginary onion-chopper in a sensible blouse and a mid-length M&S skirt; we might give her greying hair and received pronunciation, grown children and a King Charles spaniel. However we imagine her, we must not take the next step into imagining this listener is conservative (small c). Di believes that BBC radio listeners love fiction, and that they love experiment, challenge, originality and innovation. Whilst swearing, gratuitous violence and guttural sex scenes are not really on the cards, do not think of your listeners as po-faced.

3. Onion chopping may not take brains, but listeners are clever

Do not underestimate the intelligence of your potential audience. Also, do not underestimate the attention they will be giving to your story if they are fully listening. Especially when you remember that ...

4. You are naked

Di made this point, and Stella Duffy absolutely emphasised it. A story on the radio is exposed. There is only one voice; no print, no pictures to distract the listener. Poor writing, sentence structure and awkward rhythms will show up more here than ever.

5. As well as onions and nudity, keep these pitfalls in mind:
  • Time-jumping is tricky – the listener cannot flip back
  • Unattributed dialogue is confusing, especially if the voices are similar
  • Voices of small children are also tricky when it comes to recording
  • Stories that rant do not appeal, so avoid polemic in the guise of fiction
  • Elliptical, over-clever stories are hard to listen to

6. Finally: edit, copy edit and proof read as much as you can without crying, onions or no. There is no better excuse to put down a submission than evidence that the writer has not edited properly.

Above all, though, think of a voice – this story must have its own voice (it doesn’t have to be the mythical one that we writers are supposedly ever seeking – just one that belongs to the story) and imagine it speaking aloud as you write. 

You can submit work for radio to Sweet Talk and Pier Productions as well as direct to Radio 4, but they all have their submission periods, so check these first. The next deadline for Sweet Talk is 18th July, and you can find the details here.

Good luck!